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Healthy Henna for Hair and Body

This ancient plant is to dye for!
By Nancy Allison
March/April 2004
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Mehndi photos courtesy of Catherine Cartwright-Jones, www.mehandi.com
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Thinking of tinkering with your hair color? It may sound scary, but it’s nothing new: Egyptian mummies found with remnants of dyed red hair attest to the fact that humans have been coloring their hair for thousands of years. Many plants can be used as dyes, from walnut shells to coffee beans. But Lawsonia inermis, the henna plant, stands above the rest as a dye for human hair, and has done so since antiquity.

Queenly Beauty

Cleopatra is probably the most glamorous henna user in history, but the Old Testament reports that King Solomon used henna, too (along with indigo to stain his beard). Hadith scholars tell us Muhammad sang henna’s praises not only as a hair and beard colorant but also as a revitalizing emollient.

Islamic medicine cites many uses for the herb: to cure heat-induced headaches, to treat blisters and to soothe sore hands and feet. In fact, the ancients reported that henna did more than turn hair a racy red or cure an aching noggin — it was said the scent of henna flowers could resurrect the dead.

These days, henna is used for less dramatic revivals: to give new life to dull hair. Applied as both a dye and conditioner in the East, thousands of women feel it gives hair a smooth, healthy texture in addition to a beautiful red sheen.

Color Indoors and Out

L. inermis is a member of the Lythraceae family, along with crape myrtle and Mexican heather. A perennial shrub that grows in Egypt, India and parts of the Middle East, it can reach a height of 24 feet. It grows best in most U.S. zones as an annual or as a tender outdoor container plant. To enjoy the plant year after year, plant it in a pot rather than the ground, so you can easily bring it indoors when frost is on the way.

Henna has tremendously fragrant white to red flowers. It is planted today primarily as an ornamental hedge but is best known for the use of its dried, ground leaves to produce colorfast orange, red and brown dyes for the hair and skin. Dried, powdered leaves of henna contain about 0.5 to 1.5 percent lawsone, the ingredient responsible for the dyeing properties of the plant. Henna also contains mannite, tannic acid, mucilage, gallic acid and napthoquinone.

East Meets West

Henna’s natural protective and restorative powers for the hair are well established in ancient literature and scriptures. Belief in the benefits of henna, or mehndi, as it is popularly known in India, is still strong today, and the herb is used on both hair and skin by thousands of women in India and the Middle East. So enamored of henna are Indian women that a well-known hair-care institute in Hyderabad is being investigated for its claim that henna makes hair brittle and dry.

Such claims don’t seem to have had an effect on henna’s popularity, either in the East or the West. The herb often is added to shampoos and conditioners in the United States and is increasingly used as a hair colorant here.

Henna is seen by devotees in the United States and Europe as a safe alternative to commercial hair dye, with none of the drawbacks of chemical processes. Most users report their hair feels conditioned and soft after application and that they are pleased with the resulting color, which can range from light auburn to deep eggplant, depending on the original hair color.

Instructions for Use

Henna is sold as a greenish-brown powder, the ground leaf and petiole of L. inermis. The powder is mixed with enough water (or lemon juice, tea, coffee or even wine) to form a yogurty paste.

If you don’t like the smell of hay, you won’t like using henna. It will stain everything in sight, so wear something old and grubby, and move all rugs and towels that you don’t want to ruin. Smooth some petroleum jelly along the skin bordering your hairline, covering your forehead, ears and neck. And don’t forget to wear rubber gloves!

Apply the henna with a comb, spoon or squeeze bottle. Then wrap hair in plastic wrap to retain heat, and leave on for several hours. Wash out thoroughly and shampoo gently. Dry with a towel you do not mind staining. This is good advice for the next time you wash your hair, too. Although it is stable when dry, henna may, for the first few days at least, still come off on your towel when your hair is wet.

Henna users say a treatment lasts from three weeks to several months, depending on your original hair color. Henna diva Catherine Cartwright-Jones devotes her website, www.mehandi.com, to tips for the henna user. Along with rave reviews about the herb, she gives some warnings, detailed below.

Serious Caveats

“Never put henna on hair that has been straightened, permed, dyed or bleached in the previous year,” Cartwright-Jones says. “The results can range from peculiar to catastrophic. Henna over chemically dyed hair equals dead hair! I do mean dead. You can’t fix it. This is ‘Shave your head and join a nunnery’ dead hair.”

As with any hair colorant, it is wise to do a patch test with henna to determine whether you are allergic to the plant. Itching, chills or hives mean a reaction, so if you experience any of these, do not continue. Also worth noting: Henna does not lighten hair and will not work well on hair that is 50 percent or more gray.

A good idea for first-time users is a “lock test.” Cut off a small lock of your hair; then henna it, wash it out and let it dry. If the color frightens you, don’t use it.

Body Henna

Henna has come under scrutiny in the past few years due to its increased use in this country and in Europe as temporary skin tattoo. Mehndi is not only the Indian name for henna but is also the term for the traditional form of body decoration for both men and women in countries such as India, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait and Pakistan. Its origins as a celebratory ritual go back thousands of years, when it was reserved for special occasions, particularly weddings.

Mehndi is still applied at weddings in India and in expatriate communities abroad. Traditionally, women of the family paint extravagant designs onto the bride’s hands and feet with henna paste. In some families, the mother-in-law puts the first drop of henna onto her daughter-in-law’s skin. If the color is dark, it is a good omen for the marriage and their relationship.

In 1998, when Madonna appeared in the music video Frozen with henna tattoos on her hands, it became trendy to have one of these ancient decorations applied to the body. Mehndi soon became a fashion statement, worn by such public personalities as Naomi Campbell, Drew Barrymore and Darryl Hannah. As more young people rushed to get their own mehndi, reports of skin reactions began to appear.

On April 18, 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generated an alert for henna used on the skin. This was in response to the incidence of allergic reactions and skin injuries resulting from henna tattoos. The danger is not in the unadulterated henna paste itself but in other substances that are often added to henna to make it darker.

Beware of Black Henna

According to the FDA, so-called black henna or blue henna tattoos may contain the “coal tar” color para-phenylenediamine, also known as PPD. Although PPD is a legally used ingredient in permanent oxidative hair dyes sold in the United States, it is not approved or legal for use on the skin in henna tattoos.

It may seem a contradiction that the FDA allows the use of PPD on the scalp yet bans the use of it on the rest of the body. The reason is that all packages of permanent hair dye come with the warning that an allergic reaction may occur and suggest performing a patch test before use. But when one receives a mehndi made with adulterated henna containing PPD, there aren’t likely to be warnings or tests for reactions given.

Pure Henna is Safe

Dr. E.J. van Zuuren at Leids University Medical Center in the Netherlands confirms that henna on its own is a safe alternative to permanent tattooing. “Contact dermatitis due to [pure] henna is rare. Most of the reactions are due to additives, especially PPD, which is added to speed up the process of skin dyeing and to give a darker brown to black color.”

Dr. van Zuuren describes a case of a mother and two sons, aged 8 and 10, who reacted to henna tattoos with allergic contact dermatitis and scarring of the skin. “Patch tests with PPD were strongly positive in all three patients. This positive reaction means that they will never be able to dye their hair and that they have an increased risk of cross-reactions with other dyes.”

Know Your Chemicals

As a result of cross-reaction, many people who react badly to a henna tattoo suffer an allergic reaction of acute contact dermatitis upon dyeing their hair with permanent (PPD) dye. Dr. Riboulet-Delmas, of Sainte-Justine Hospital in Quebec, reports that reactions to henna tattoos adulterated with PPD can range from “post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation of the tattoo site to permanent sensitization to PPD and related compounds.” In plain English? Once you react to PPD, you can probably never use commercial dyes again without reacting.

More worrisome, perhaps, is the connection between use of permanent hair color (containing PPD) and increased risk of certain cancers. Although the jury is still out on the subject, the question is enough to convince many to switch to henna, the world’s oldest natural hair color.


Nancy Allison is a freelance writer currently living in England.

The reference list for this article is extensive. If you would like a copy, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to “Henna,” Herbs for Health, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or e-mail us at editor@herbsforhealth.com.


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